Don’t read this list from Paul’s letter to Timothy as a legalistic checklist, but rather as convictions that should build our character.
By Dr. Chris Hefner
For those of us in pastoral ministry, that simple statement seems so obvious. Over and over again, we see pastors and church leaders fail morally and ethically. We see pastors who lose control. We see pastors who begin their ministry well only to fizzle out long before retirement.
For me, one of the Bible’s most convicting passages comes from 1 Timothy 3:1-7. Here we discover Paul’s qualifications for pastoral leadership.
This saying is trustworthy: “If anyone aspires to be an overseer, he desires a noble work.” An overseer, therefore, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, self-controlled, sensible, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not an excessive drinker, not a bully but gentle, not quarrelsome, not greedy. He must manage his own household competently and have his children under control with all dignity. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a new convert, or he might become conceited and incur the same condemnation as the devil. Furthermore, he must have a good reputation among outsiders, so that he does not fall into disgrace and the devil’s trap.
1 Timothy 3:1-7
Let me offer caution when we apply this list, and then I want to share several convictions from Paul’s list.
First, the caution—we should avoid seeing these qualifications as a checklist. I find 14 specific qualifications listed. If we view them as a checklist, we run the risk of adopting a legalistic interpretation that is inconsistent with the heart of the text.
For example, the admonitions regarding marriage and parenting do not disqualify single men from pastoral ministry. I also think a case can be made that Paul’s affirmation, “husband of one wife,” does not automatically disqualify divorced men from pastoral ministry or deacon ministry for that matter.
The term means a one-woman man. Applied in Paul’s day this phrase would have forbidden a polygamist from serving as an elder as it also emphasized fidelity in marriage. Applied today, the elder/husband should have eyes, heart, and body given to his wife and his wife alone.
So what about divorce?
Divorce and remarriage could certainly disqualify one from pastoral ministry, but maybe not always. Consider a man divorced and remarried before salvation. Or consider a pastor whose wife left him (divorced him) and is not interested in reconciliation.
In these cases, it is not clear to me that divorce requires automatic disqualification from ministry.
Simply stated, we need to exercise caution that we do not perceive this list as a legalistic checklist, but rather as convictions that should build our character.
Here are several convictions that flow from the text:
1. God looks at the heart.
God affirmed this truth to Samuel regarding his choice of David. Phrases like, “above reproach,” “sober-minded,” “self-controlled,” and “not a lover of money” highlight God’s expectation that pastors must be pure of heart.
If what is in our heart is different from the persona we present on Sundays, we can be sure that eventually the inconsistency will be revealed.
2. Family matters.
The Bible does not place pastors on a pedestal but does reflect God’s intention that pastors model a spiritually healthy family life for their congregations.
The following sections reveal the truth: “the husband of one wife,” “manage his own household competently and have his children under control with all dignity. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of God’s church?)”
The pastor who remains a faithful and devoted husband and leads his home illustrates the faithfulness of Christ as a husband and God as a father. While the pastor cannot hope to be perfect, he cannot model God’s expectation of pastoral ministry and model a godly home life if the church is his mistress, and he is a workaholic.
Pastors must follow Jesus, lead their families, and then care for their congregations.
3. Others come first.
The pastor is to be selfless, not self-centered.
Paul reflects this idea in the following qualifications, “respectable, hospitable, able to teach…, not a bully but gentle, not quarrelsome…” and “have a good reputation among outsiders, so that he does not fall into disgrace and the devil’s trap.”
These traits reveal a man who cares first about others.
He doesn’t fight or fuss, isn’t arrogant and belligerent, doesn’t have to have his way, isn’t controlling and cares about the souls of others.
When complimented or criticized, we must be careful not to think too highly or too little of ourselves. Rather, we must realize that we minister for God’s glory and the spiritual benefit of others.
God’s calling on us is not really about us.
4. Pursue accountability.
Pastors who become isolated are in danger of falling. Paul reminds us, “not an excessive drinker, not a bully but gentle” and “must not be a new convert, or he might become conceited and incur the same condemnation as the devil.”
Who really knows you? Who are you accountable to for the condition of your heart? Do you allow someone to speak truth and conviction into your life?
If not, then you need to pray for and pursue accountability with someone else. A faithful accountability partner who will call you out on your sins can rescue you from a fall and the condemnation of the devil.
5. Plead the gospel.
None of us are perfect.
If these character expectations shined a light on the interiors of our heart, each of us would fall short. Our righteousness does not qualify us for gospel ministry. It is a good thing that our ministry is dependent upon the call of a grace-filled God and not our own holiness.
- We should reflect often on this passage of Scripture.
- We should confess our shortfalls daily.
- We should pursue accountability because we need it.
But to be truly effective pastors, we must plead the gospel.
Daily, regularly, as often as we can, we must preach the gospel to ourselves.
- We must remember that we are not good enough to be pastors; there is only One who is.
- We must remember that it is not our qualifications that establish our calling; rather we minister on the basis of the One who called us.
- We must remember that our pastoral effectiveness has less to do with our obedience than it does with the obedience and power of the One who gave us the gospel.
Yes, character counts. We must pursue it. But most of all we should be grateful for the perfected character of Jesus Christ who has called us to this “noble task.”
Chris is senior pastor at Wilkesboro Baptist Church in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. He’s also professor of Western Civilization and Apologetics at Fruitland Baptist Bible College.